Data Center on a Chip? Welcome to the New Cutting Edge

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    The Evolution of the Data Center to the Cloud

    The data center will be a very different place within a few short years, but I’m not talking about virtualization, the cloud or anything software-defined.

    A slew of new technologies currently under development could overturn some of the most basic, long-standing data technologies, and even a few that are deemed cutting-edge at the moment.

    A key example is a new storage technology based on carbon nanotubes—atom-sized, cylindrical structures that have the potential to push Flash, DRAM, SRAM and solid state in general onto the back burner. A company called Nantero is close to a production-ready, CMOS-compatible device that would push switching performance into the picosecond range and provide a five-nines percent reduction in power consumption. The company is looking at applications ranging from high-density cache for servers and storage systems to near-instant boot architectures for desktops and mobile devices.

    Meanwhile, Fujitsu has begun public demonstrations of a silicon photonics architecture that uses fiber optics to speed up connections between disparate systems. The company recently showed one of its Primergy RX200 servers wired up to multiple storage and co-processor expansion boxes using Intel’s OPCI-Express protocol, which is essentially the optical version of the PCI-Express format. The idea is to distribute key computing systems over long distances with little or no performance hit, which would ultimately lead to higher densities, improved resource allocation flexibility and lower power and cooling costs. The demo featured 10-meter links at 68Gbps bandwidth, although the technology is capable of 100Gbps over multiple hundreds of meters.

    Optical technology is also working its way onto the LAN. The Association for Passive Optical LAN (APOLAN) has drawn a number of leading backers, including Corning, IBM and 3M, with the aim of preparing the enterprise for future data loads through upgrades to today’s copper-based networks. Optical provides not only more bandwidth at greater distances, but also draws much less power and space. And as nearly every telecommunications company has already shown in their long-haul networks, optical provides a robust network infrastructure for unified voice, video and data communications.

    But if this isn’t enough, how about an entire data center reduced to a single piece of silicon? Researchers at UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering are working on such a chip in the ongoing effort to improve both the scale and density of computing environments. The “racks on a chip” design would contain multiple compute cores plus networking infrastructure. The chip features both optical circuit switching for large-volume delivery and electronic packet switching for priority data. A key stumbling block, however, is an optical/electrical transceiver small enough to fit on the chip.

    Entire data centers in your cell phone? Near-instant connectivity across continents? Data infrastructure dispersed on a global scale? The changes that have taken place in the past few years have been dramatic, but I have a feeling we haven’t seen anything yet.

    Arthur Cole
    Arthur Cole
    With more than 20 years of experience in technology journalism, Arthur has written on the rise of everything from the first digital video editing platforms to virtualization, advanced cloud architectures and the Internet of Things. He is a regular contributor to IT Business Edge and Enterprise Networking Planet and provides blog posts and other web content to numerous company web sites in the high-tech and data communications industries.

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